Ten Ideas to Keep in Mind When You are Struggling to Raise Money

Ten Ideas to Keep in Mind When You are Struggling to Raise Money


2 July 2024


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


Some land trusts are supported by fewer than 100 donors. A few are supported by fewer than 50.


For context, consider that most conservation organizations, regardless of the community in which they work, can attract at least 50 new donors each year just by being generally visible. In this regard, land trusts operating in small rural areas have an advantage over those operating in larger more urban areas, because it’s much easier to get “lost” in the noise of urban America.

And let’s say good renewal systems can renew at least 40% of first year donors and 65% overall. So, with 50 new donors coming in every year and 65% overall retention, one could expect the number of donors to grow to about 150 and then level off. After 150, the number of donors gained each year would equal the number lost to attrition.

And frankly, I think that’s low. Most organizations should be able to do better than 50 new donors and 65% retention each year. In fact, a large number of land trust organization are stuck in a number trap between 250 and 350 donors – I have called it the 300-Member Trap. An organization falls in this trap by consistently recruiting 80-100 new donors each year and maintaining a retention rate of 70-75%. And there are scores of land trusts out there that fit that description more or less.


So what’s up with just 100 donors? Or just 50?

Insufficient donor recruitment? Bad retention systems? Both?

More importantly, what do we do now and how do we grow?


If you are in one of these land trusts, or if perhaps you know of some other organization that meets this description, here are ten ideas to keep in mind that could help.

  1. Donations are GIFTS. Freely given with expectations only related to information. Offering multi-year discounts, life memberships, discounts at local businesses, or even some premiums cheapens the whole idea of giving. They turn gifts into transactions, with something of value exchanged both ways. And why would anyone give $250 to participate in something that only “costs” $50?
  2. People are INDIVIDUALS. Many organizations supported by fewer than 100 donors are getting the majority of their funding from public and foundation grants. Or perhaps from one or two extraordinary “angel” donors. It’s tempting to treat everyone else as if they were all alike. Each grant request is individually considered and written explicitly FOR that particular agency or institution. Individual people are just as different. They are of different ages, they respond to different communications media, they have different reasons for supporting conservation work. Treating them all the same doesn’t work any better than it would for foundations.
  3. People are more likely to give when they are ASKED by someone they know and trust. This means that the more personal the request can be, the more likely it is to be successful. Sign your letters. Send email from your personal email. Call people on the telephone. Make it personal.
  4. COMMUNICATION trumps impact. The best land trust out there won’t generate any support from those who have never heard of it.
  5. Fundraising is like SALES. Believing in your own product, always following-up, and being persistent are all keys to success.
  6. Fundraising is NOT like sales. We are not in the business of creating a market. Trying to convince someone whose politics don’t allow for rational thinking about the environment is just folly. (It may be that part of your organization’s mission is to put forth a political argument for conservation and Nature, but that will not be for the purpose of raising money from individual donors.) Instead, you will always get farther faster by helping people find you who already agree that conservation is a worthwhile endeavor.
  7. Non-profits are still COMPETITIVE. This means that every donor has opportunities left, right, and center to make meaningful contributions to local, state, national, and even international causes. To meaningfully compete, your organization needs to be visible and relevant. Don’t hold back. Get in the game!
  8. Get your BOARD engaged before you hire fundraising staff. And when you do hire your first fundraising staff, have that person support the fundraising work of the Board, as opposed to relieving them of it. Every Board needs to be a fundraising Board.
  9. Handwritten notes and personal phone calls are OLD SCHOOL, and so what? Just because they’re old school doesn’t make them wrong. And just because something is new doesn’t make it superior. Handwritten notes and personal phone calls still work, and people remember the personal touch.
  10. Make intelligent and intentional INVESTMENTS in fundraising but don’t advertise the fact. More fundraising efforts fail because they are undercapitalized than because they are wasteful. Donors don’t decide to give more because you are squeezing the turnips. They give more because you are getting more done. Focus your donors’ attention on how much THEY are getting done with their money than on how much you aren’t spending on fundraising. And evaluate fundraising activities on 36-60 month returns instead of 12-month returns.


The bottom line is that I believe some organizations are supported by fewer than 100 donors because they are holding themselves back. Perhaps they don’t believe doing more is possible. Perhaps they are still trying to find easier ways to raise money than by asking for it. Perhaps they are thinking about fundraising in some deeply flawed ways.

Regardless, as a final thought, here are three paradigm shifts everyone could make that would help a lot:


Instead of looking for donrs to help US do something WE think is important, let’s offer them opportunities to make a difference and see ourselves as helping them.


Instead of waiting for “rich” people to come along and give us money, let’s understand that for many people, gifts of $250-1,000 are large, perhaps even “major,” gifts. The word “major” should never describe the person making the gift. It’s not a substitute for “rich.” The word “major” should describe the gift itself. In that sense, we can all be called upon to make a major gift for something that speaks to us and is consistent with our values.


Instead of focusing our attention on all the reasons someone might say NO, let’s focus on why they might say YES. And let’s allow them to say NO for themselves, if that’s what they are going to do, instead of saying NO for them by not ever asking.



Cheers, and have a great week!




PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by Ryan Haris courtesy Pixabay



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